Weapon of mass instruction

Javier Nicolas spent four years in Chiapas, Mexico, from 1996 to 2000, photographing the indigenous people there. He did so to celebrate their lives and culture — and to inform others about atrocities committed against them, often by their own countrymen.

When local photographer Gail Forsyth saw his pictures, she was, she says, “deeply moved.”

So she and Nicolas began planning a multidimensional event — the Festival for Chiapas — with a wholly humanitarian goal.

“One-hundred percent of the proceeds will go to the Fray Bartolome Center for Human Rights in San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas,” explains Forsyth. That is, with one notable exception: Proceeds from the textiles being sold will go, she notes, to the individual Chiapas craftspeople who made them.

San Cristobal de las Casas has actually been one of Asheville’s sister cities since 1994.

A compromised future

While in Mexico, Nicolas also took pictures of artisans’ work, wanting to market it, he says.

“[Craft] cooperatives are one of the few options the indigenous people there have to create a self-sufficient life,” he elaborates. “They have been expelled from their land by paramilitary forces and can no longer live by subsistence farming.”

Chiapas is Mexico’s richest state for commodities such as oil, timber, uranium and hydroelectric energy; half of the country’s electricity is produced there. For that reason, Nicolas explains, the region has been persecuted by resource stealers without regard for sustaining any modicum of natural balance, ecological protection or respect for local citizens and their customs.

Chiapas includes almost 1 million direct descendents of the great Mayan civilization. These indigenous people, who depend on the land for sustenance, have vigorously resisted outside profiteering and exploitation. In response, paramilitary forces — some trained and armed by the Mexican government –have tried to evict or even exterminate them, Nicolas asserts.

Too, he adds, a number of international conglomerates have backed such efforts (including companies based in the U.S.), bent on protecting their business and financial interests.

A history of betrayal

Since the Spanish arrived in the area some 500 years ago, indigenous people have been systematically abused, murdered, forced into slavery and stripped of their land.

On Jan. 1, 1994, a poorly armed Chiapan group — members of the EZLN (Ejercito Zapatista de Liberacion Nacional), or Zapatista Army for National Liberation — led an uprising there. The revolt, though brief, brought international attention to the region.

The Mexican government was forced into negotiations with Chiapas residents since the Zapatistas gained overwhelming popular support in the region.

The date of the uprising coincided with the official advent of the North American Free Trade Agreement. NAFTA put the Chiapans — who can’t compete with large companies in a global market, and who work instead on small-scale subsistence farms with no mechanization — at a decided disadvantage, Nicolas maintains. (Their exquisite crafts, too, are made by painstakingly slow traditional methods.)

After the 1994 uprising, the Mexican government moved an estimated 70,000 troops into the area, where their very presence has created ongoing conflicts.

Then, in December 1997, paramilitary forces killed 45 unarmed men, women and children who were gathered in prayer inside a church in the village of Acteal. Since the massacre, organizations such as the Fray Bartolome Center for Human Rights have offered assistance to victims’ families and other Chiapans in need.

“I was living in Chiapas when it happened,” reveals Nicolas, whose Portraits of Chiapas exhibit now at UNCA includes photos taken in the aftermath of the tragedy.

Art supporting life

Nicolas and Forsyth hope that their Festival for Chiapas will provide needed assistance to the people of the beleaguered region, as well as a practical way for local folks to participate in an important international human-rights campaign.

“We need to get the word out about the situation down there, and raise awareness of this on a local and global level,” says Nicolas.

“For the record,” Forsyth clarifies, “we are raising money for a neutral, nongovernmental, human-rights organization, not for the Zapatista movement. We are sending money to a group that helps the victims of human-rights violations in Chiapas.

“There is still time,” she insists, “to save the beautifully rich culture of some of the last remaining indigenous Americans in this continent.”


The Festival for Chiapas — including puppetry, a magic show, films, juggling, dance and poetry — takes place Saturday, July 12 at UNCA’s Lipinsky Auditorium. Children’s activities and documentaries start at 2 p.m., and are free (though donations will be accepted). The evening show/silent auction start at 7 p.m. Tickets, available at the door, cost $10/adults, $4/children. For more information, call 279-4577, or go to www.chiapasfest.purplecat.net.

Artists for Chiapas

Portraits of Chiapas, an exhibit of photographs by Javier Nicolas, is on view through Friday, July 25 at UNCA’s Blowers Gallery.

Musicians Peggy Seeger, Chris Rosser, Kellin Watson, Jen Hamel (of Mosby), The Ribtips, Josh Bulla, Daniel Rojas Davila and Doug Smith will play Festival for Chiapas on Saturday, July 12, along with The Muses, a six-women, a cappella group accompanied by special guest Rachel Schlafer-Parton, doing sign language.

Mendy Knott and Carrie Gerstmann will perform poetry, and Rhythm of Isis, Blue Ridge Ballroom, and Ira Bernstein will provide dance. A silent auction will feature goods and services donated by local businesses, plus hand-embroidered clothing from indigenous women in cooperatives in Chiapas.

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